National Column: Liberal to-do list is time sensitive

by Chantel Hebert

The cabinet Justin Trudeau unveils on Nov. 4 will have to hit the ground running.

From recasting Canada in the anti-Islamic State international coalition, to deciding the fate of the just-negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership, beating a ticking Supreme Court clock on medically assisted suicide, rewriting the Conservative anti-terrorism legislation and setting up an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women, many of the items on the incoming government’s to-do list are time sensitive.

On Tuesday, Trudeau said he expected his future ministers to be “actual deciders.” Time will tell how much real autonomy that job description will entail. What is certain is that the men and women who make up the first Liberal cabinet in a decade will all have their work cut out for them clearing an overloaded policy agenda.

Over and above all other cabinet choices, Trudeau’s picks for the finance and environment portfolios are
the ones that stand to define his rookie government. Here’s why.

By definition, the finance minister comes second only to the prime minister in the cabinet pecking order. There is no margin of error in selecting the right person for the job, for one cannot change finance ministers like one changes shirts.

When Stephen Harper first came to power, Jim Flaherty had the inside track on the finance post and picking Paul Martin was a no-brainer for Jean ChrÈtien.

In contrast with his predecessors, Trudeau has a variety of routes he could take. Some are more adventurous than others.

The Liberal leader wants to appoint an equal number of men and women to his cabinet. In the past, the promise to make more room at the top for women has mostly translated into filling the bottom tier of the cabinet with female ministers while leaving the front-line portfolios in male hands.

Canada has never had a female finance minister. To show he means business on gender parity, Trudeau could pick an economics-savvy former journalist such as University-Rosedale MP Chrystia Freeland.

Quebec was a bit player in Harper’s three governments. Appointing one of his fellow Quebecers to finance would reinforce the message that the province is back at the big table. Economist Jean-Yves Duclos – who managed to get elected in the Quebec City Conservative heartland on Monday – has strong credentials for the post.

Toronto Centre MP Bill Morneau is both an experienced Bay Street figure and a fresh face on Parliament Hill. His appointment would reassure corporate Canada that there will continue to be open channels between it and the new government without diluting Trudeau’s change message.

A trio of veteran parliamentarians with hands-on experience in government in the shape of Ralph Goodale, John McCallum and Scott Brison round out the “safe” section of the list.

There is no such competition for the environment portfolio. If Trudeau is serious about dusting off the climate change file he will reappoint StÈphane Dion to his previous ministerial brief.

Little would send the international community the message that Canada is back in the climate change battle more loudly than the return of the last federal minister to have played a constructive role on the issue on the world stage.

In contrast with finance, the place of the environmental file on a government’s radar is proportional to the influence of its ministerial keeper. A former party leader, Dion has the gravitas to ensure the environment brief is not (again) shoved off the table.

The pipeline debate is where Quebec’s sovereigntist leadership has determined to draw its latest line in the sand. Dion fought and won a war of words on the rules of a future referendum against more articulate sovereigntist champions than the current ones.

Trudeau has long argued that a lack of social licence accounted for the Conservative failure to get a single pipeline project off the drawing board. A strong pro-environment voice in the top tier of the cabinet is a precondition to restoring public confidence in the pipeline approval process.

It won’t be hard for Trudeau to find a more inspiring finance minister than Joe Oliver turned out to be in the dying years of the Harper reign. But on his choice of an environment minister, the Liberal prime-minister-designate will be held to a higher standard.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services

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